Sunday, 27 November 2016

'The Lost Watercolours' is an Art Book of the Year!

Lovely to see 'The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden' featured as one of the Art Books of the Year in The Sunday Times yesterday. You can read what Michael Prodger had to say about the book here, though the website is subscription-only...

The book is more expensive than most art books but the cover price reflects the fact that it's a limited edition of 850 copies. Anyway it's cheaper than a new phone and will last a lot longer!

You can buy 'The Lost Watercolours' from independent booksellers such as Henry Sotheran's and Much Ado Books, or from The Mainstone Press.

Monday, 7 November 2016

'Century' at Jerwood / Bowie at Sotheby's

Century: 100 Modern British Artists from Jerwood Gallery on Vimeo.

The twentieth century was an exciting time for British artists. Inspired both by the revolutionary art movements of continental Europe and by deeply-ingrained insular traditions, painters and sculptors explored the world around them in thrilling new ways. At a time when photography, film and TV threatened to make traditional art forms redundant, artists responded by finding new ways of expressing their feelings about people and places that moved them – and the public responded in turn by flocking to museums and galleries.

Now open at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, ‘Century’ brings together paintings and sculptures, drawings and prints by a hundred artists who lived and worked in Britain during the 20th century. Some were immigrants. Others travelled extensively, across mainland Europe and further afield, in search of ideas and inspiration. Some haunted museums and became expert in African sculpture or Japanese printmaking. Others befriended avant-garde artists like Picasso and learnt from them.

Curating ‘Century’ has been a delight. All the works are selected from two eclectic collections of modern British art – the Jerwood Collection and the Ingram Collection – and while there are some famous names on display, what I love is the range, variety and quality of the artworks.

View of 'Bowie: Collector', from Sotheby's website
It's fairly madcap, though not quite as zany as the current exhibition of David Bowie's art collection at Sotheby's on Bond Street. Bowie's taste tended towards the vibrant, particularly in his liking for modern-art-influenced furniture. Those funky sofas and lamps are marvellous but sad: the treasures of a dead king.

I love how the Sotheby's curators have arranged everything, with huge photos of the man himself to remind us that what all the fuss is about, and then the most incredible amount of stuff crammed into each room. It's an art wake, a celebration (and, I know, fantastic publicity for no less than three upcoming auctions).  The show must have been both a logistical nightmare and tremendous fun to curate. It's certainly a treat for the visitor, not least because so many of the other visitors are obviously wondering whether to bid on particular pieces. The art world needs this glamour and excitement.

Reg Butler, Woman on Boat, 1953 (copyright artist estate)
Bowie's taste in art was eclectic. Alongside experimental New York art from the 1990s (which complements the zingy furnishings), there is a solid body of modern British art which bears a strong resemblance to Chris Ingram's collection. Similar artists, similar works, sometimes even the same works. It was weird to see 'Woman on Boat' (1953), one of several Reg Butler sculptures in 'Century', on show at Sotheby's.

Curiously, I was allowed to take pictures of this sculpture and anything else that caught my fancy, whereas Jerwood Gallery (and numerous other art museums) are obliged to ban photography to protect copyright holders. It's an odd situation, but it does mean that if you want to enjoy the treasures on display in 'Century', you'll have to go along and see them for yourself. And if you've never visited the Old Town of Hastings, you're in for a treat.

'Century' runs at Jerwood Gallery until January.
'Bowie Collector' runs at Sotheby's until Nov 10.

Monday, 10 October 2016

'Century' at Jerwood: John Piper

John Piper, Beach and Starfish, Seven Sisters, mixed media, 1933-4 (Jerwood Collection)

Like many British artists of his generation Piper was inspired from an early age by places – rather than people – and here he has used the avant-garde medium of collage to bring the venerable British genre of coastal painting up to date. Look carefully and you can see how cleverly he has combined paint and other media, like the fabric of the flag and the seashells borrowed from an old book, to make a familiar scene seem new and strange.

Piper is one of 100 modern British artists featured in my exhibition 'Century', which opens at Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, in a couple of weeks. In fact we're starting the hang this week (touches wood, tries not to think about railway strikes)...

Friday, 7 October 2016

Tirzah Garwood & Peggy Angus in the ODNB

Tirzah Garwood by Duffy Ayers, 1944
Earlier this year I wrote entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on two remarkable women: Peggy Angus and Tirzah Garwood. The former was born in Chile to ex-patriot Scottish parents, then raised in Muswell Hill, London. She won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in the early 1920s and there met Eric Ravilious, who in turn met Tirzah when, after graduating from the Royal College, he taught her at the Eastbourne School of Art. When Eric and Tirzah were married in 1930 the two women became friends; though very different in many ways, they shared both artistic talent and a belief in plain speaking.

It was fascinating to try and condense the lives of these two immensely creative, characterful people into a few hundred words, especially given that their lives were so closely intertwined. Inevitably an ODNB entry tends to focus on the facts but I hope some hint of character comes through in the newly published essays. For anyone who's interest is piqued there is good news.

In Peggy's case, I would recommend Carolyn Trant's beautiful limited edition biography 'Art for Life', which is based heavily on interviews with Peggy - though after following the link you may want to seek it out in a library! Alternatively you could get hold of the book I wrote to accompany the 2014 exhibition at Towner - 'Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter'. I was going to say it's a cheaper option, but people seem to be offering copies at the most terrifying prices. Must be out of print...

With Tirzah the options are rather better, as Persephone Books is about to publish her autobiography 'Long Live Great Bardfield' in a trade edition. This hilarious, insightful and sometimes painfully honest book was edited by Eric and Tirzah's daughter Anne Ullmann, and was originally published as a typically gorgeous limited edition by The Fleece Press. Illustrated with Tirzah's witty wood engravings, the new paperback is a must-read for anyone who has even a passing interest in life and culture in interwar England.

What else? Oh yes. By some quirk of timing, Tirzah is the 60,000th person to have their life recorded in the ODNB. I'm not sure if that makes Peggy the 59,999th, or the 60,001st.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Hiding Out in the English Countryside: Geoffrey Household & Samuel Palmer

David Rooney, illustration for 'Rogue Male' by Geoffrey Household, Folio Soc, 2013
Whenever I investigate an artist described as Neo-Romantic I discover that they either a. disliked the term or b. vehemently rejected it. Was there anyone who actually wanted to be thought of as Neo-Romantic, in the way that artists queued up to be labelled Surrealist? I'm not sure it's a very helpful term either, except as a description of a certain mood. You know a Neo-Romantic painting when you see one.

I have a book called 'This Enchanted Isle'. The author, Peter Woodcock, was apparently taught by Bawden and himself taught for many years at Camberwell. Aside from that I know nothing about him, but I love this book. It is everything an art history book is not supposed to be. You might call it anti-academic in its joyous mixing-up of artists, writers and film makers spanning two centuries.

'This Enchanted Isle', Peter Woodcock, Gothic Image Pub. 2000
When I first got it out of the library I baulked at the subtitle: 'The Neo-Romantic Vision from William Blake to the New Visionaries'. The new what? And then the list of names, from Palmer and Nash to Keigh Vaughan and John Craxton. So far it made sense. Blake, Palmer, then the 'Neo-Romantics'. But what about Elizabeth Bowen, Peter Ackroyd... Iain Sinclair? Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, Derek Jarman?

Instead of reading it as one would an art history book, looking for analysis and explanation and a clearer sense of how x fits with y, I dipped into it before going to sleep, reading a chapter here and a paragraph there. Gradually I realised that this wasn't a conventional book with a thesis but one built around mood, feeling and suggestion. The author had evidently spent years reading, watching and studying the various writers and artists, and wanted to share both his enthusiasm and his sense of a connection between disparate creative minds.

Graham Sutherland, Entrance to a Lane, 1939 (Tate)
One writer who was new to me was Geoffrey Household, and having read about him I rushed out to find his best-known book, 'Rogue Male'. Ostensibly a thriller about a man on the run from more or less everybody, it is evidently the work of a strange mind. The protagonist spends much of the novel hiding in a sort of burrow, in the side of an impenetrable holloway not far from Beaminster, and this experience is vividly described. On one level it reminds me of childhood den-building and grubbing about in ditches.

John Craxton, Poet in Landscape, 1941
But the thorny lane and earthy hollow are also Neo-Romantic motifs. At least they are subjects explored by Graham Sutherland and then by younger artists who were influenced by him. Sutherland in turn was the most ardent of Samuel Palmer's many early 20th century admirers. And when Palmer set to work in the 1820s portraying the Kent countryside in ink and paint and gum arabic he did so in a manner reminiscent of  Blake, cramming trees, churches, cornfields and shepherds into dense compositions, as his hero distorted human figures to fill the page.
William Blake, illustration from 'The First Book of Urizen', 1794
When I was reading 'Rogue Male' I thought about the late Tom Lubbock's description of Palmer's dense, dark ink drawings known as 'blacks':

'These pent twilit views lie snugly within their frames, with framing trees at the sides. Hills hump up at the back, the clouds close in , in the middle more trees gather into a mass, and underneath the sleeping sheep are folded into a mound, the fields of sheaves likewise. Everything is enfolded, cradled, tucked up and oystered...' (English Graphic, p141)

Samuel Palmer, Drawing for the Bright Cloud, c1831-2 (British Museum)
Later on in the same essay he describes the earnest viewers of a Palmer show (presumably the British Museum's brilliant 2005 retrospective) and asks himself, 'Are we a bunch of enclosure-seekers, hobbit-minded back-to-the-wombers? Is this bad?'

Is the urge to bury oneself in the countryside a primal human instinct, a reaction to stress or the prospect of change? Or is it a British - even English - peculiarity? I have no idea, but I'm glad Peter Woodcock wrote his book, and that he found a publisher that shared his enthusiasm.